THE fighting in Chad seems to go on forever. But there is a new unity within the former French colony's diverse ethnic population which could help bring the matter to a constructive end. The struggle has shifted from a civil war, in progress for much of the 27 years since Chad's independence, to a national war against a foreign invader: Libya's Muammar Qaddafi. Both France and the United States have moved to the defense of Chad's government in N'Djamena, now governing the more fertile southern half of the country. France provides training, technical assistance, and some 1,200 troops for defensive help; the US is sending $15 million in emergency military equipment. Both Paris and Washington are wisely cautious, however, stressing that the war must not be allowed to escalate and turn into an East-West battle.
Technically, the involvement of Colonel Qaddafi stems from his revival of an old border dispute. Under a 1935 treaty between Chad and Libya's colonial rulers, signed but never ratified, Libya's border would have been moved 65 miles farther south.
In 1973 Qaddafi took matters in his own hands, moving abruptly into the mountainous and potentially uranium-rich Aozou Strip in the north. Ten years later he expanded his hold by essentially annexing the barren northern half of the country. He took the action in the name of helping rebel troops there against the forces of Western imperialism. Qaddafi's well-known dream of establishing a pan-Islamic empire in the Sahara is more likely the key to his southern adventurism.
Ironically, it is the Libyan leader who is most responsible for the new display of national unity among Chad's populace and fighting forces. Former Chad President Goukhouni Woddei, who once headed the main antigovernment rebel group and Libya's puppet government in the north, had a falling out with Qaddafi last fall in Tripoli. Since then most of Mr. Woddei's followers in the north have shifted their allegiance to Chad President Hissein Habr'e in the south.
The hope now is that the new sense of unity in this landlocked Central African country will lead in time to a return of Chad to the Chadians. Qaddafi's Soviet-backed armed forces, well supplied by MIG-23 jet fighters and T-54 tanks, and which initiated the latest round of attacks, are among the most formidable in all of Africa. Still, Chad forces lately have scored some surprisingly impressive victories.
Libya, now backed by only two of the 11 former factions in the north, should take its troops and equipment back within its own borders. That simple move could end the whole affair. If Libya does not get out soon, Chad should take up the offers of such would-be outside mediators as the Organization of African Unity and Algeria.